Good year or bad year? Here’s our 2015 signalling predictions…

As 2014 draws to a close, it’s that traditional time to make some predictions about what developments the signalling sector might see in 2015. 2014 has seen major projects completed and others move closer to fruition. European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) and Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) have continued to expand their capabilities and geographical coverage, and in cities and countries around the world rail is increasingly seen as a vital aspect of transportation networks. So, what does think will happen in 2015? Here’s our top five predictions:

Our fifth and light-hearted prediction: technology to allow legacy steam traction to run under ETCS will be developed in the UK or Germany. Credit: Andrew Roden.

Our fifth and light-hearted prediction: technology to allow legacy steam traction to run under ETCS will be developed in the UK or Germany. Credit: Andrew Roden.


  1. ERTMS Level 3 will be announced for a major main line resignalling project in Europe in the hope that by the time work is ready to start issues about end of train detection and other issues have been resolved.
  2. Consolidation in the signalling sector will continue with the acquisition of Ansaldo STS but Chinese suppliers will increase their presence – as will Hitachi Rail, which will win a major European contract.
  3. Positive Train Control will remain contentious in the United States, with railroads continuing to complain about costs. However, its installation will prevent an accident that would have otherwise occurred, leading to renewed faith in the technology…
  4. However, elsewhere a major accident will be caused by a contractor (probably not involved in the signalling sector) inadvertently interfering with crucial lineside signalling equipment, bringing into focus the interfaces between track authority, train operators, and maintenance staff.*
  5. And finally, a bit of fun: in Germany or the United Kingdom technology will be developed to allow legacy steam locomotives to run under European Train Control System (ETCS) signalling.

Those are our top five predictions, but what are yours? Let us know via the comments form…

*This is a prediction we hope we get wrong.

InnoTrans shows maturity of railway signalling

InnoTrans continues to grow - and it confirms the increasing confidence of the global rail industry. Credit: InnoTrans

InnoTrans continues to grow – and it confirms the increasing confidence of the global rail industry. Credit: InnoTrans

A short-notice family commitment meant that was sadly unable to attend InnoTrans in Berlin this week – but we’ve been keeping an eye on the events and stories. What seems striking is that while there were rolling stock and infrastructure developments galore, game-changing innovations in signalling were few.

Of course the major companies, including sponsor Siemens presented their latest innovations and contract successes, but whereas six years ago advances in the likes of European Train Control System (ETCS), Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) and Positive Train Control (PTC) technology were plentiful, this year it could almost be considered a case of ‘business as usual’.

For infrastructure owners, train operators and governments this is a hugely important shift in emphasis. Whether for metro, conventional or high-speed rail, signalling technology in all of the key areas is now of a high level of technological maturity, safety and reliability. The risk of opting for a given provider or technology only to find that months later the previous best has been superseded by something significantly more capable has been lowered substantially. The organisations who plan, fund and build railways can now have total confidence that the system they choose is genuinely going to be capable for its expected lifespan. Removal of that element of doubt (however slight) means that the focus can be on delivering the best possible transport systems for passengers and freight customers.

And this matters a great deal. The ongoing expansion of InnoTrans speaks volumes about an industry with growing confidence in its products and services, and of its increasingly important role in solving the world’s transportation problems. After more than a decade of development and innovation, the signalling and train control systems that will run our railways for the next generation and beyond have reached technological maturity. 2014 could go down as a landmark year in railway history for that reason alone.

What innovations stood out for you at InnoTrans? Let us know via the comments form and we’ll publish the very best of them in a future update.

US Senate slams rail delays

Rail congestion is costing United States industry and agriculture hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation this week.

Rail customers in North America are suffering from network congestion - but what's the best way of  funding the improvements needed? Credit: Union Pacific.

Rail customers in North America are suffering from network congestion – but what’s the best way of funding the improvements needed? Credit: Union Pacific.

Senator John Thune expressed serious concerns about the impact of delays on the rail network, saying: “In all my years of working on rail matters, I have never seen producers more concerned than they are now regarding their restricted capability to move grain to market.”

“It is my hope that this hearing will continue to bring attention to the rail service backlogs that South Dakota shippers, and shippers nationwide, are currently facing, and encourage continued discussion about both short-term and long-term solutions to address these issues.”

The committee’s concerns carry weight, but perhaps they also reflect that the big Class 1 railroads are – to an extent – the victims of their own success: if traffic levels were lower, route congestion would be too.

The solutions are straightforward in principle: more infrastructure where it is needed most, and the rollout of Positive Train Control (PTC) to provide much needed extra capacity on existing routes. The challenge for railroads across North America is the same faced by their counterparts all around the world – funding.

Given the importance of heavy-haul freight in particular to the United States, perhaps central funding on a national network basis represents the best solution. One is sure – the  the railways must work together on the network improvements so clearly needed.

Signalling trends for InnoTrans 2014


August usually sees the rail industry go fairly quiet in terms of new announcements, but every two years the apparrent lack of activity is deceiving because companies around the world are busy gearing up for InnoTrans, which takes place as usual at Messe Berlin, this year on September 23-26.

Of course, for the signalling and train control exhibitors are of most interest, and while we await final confirmation of what the major players will be exhibiting, we can infer quite a lot from recent trends in the industry.

First of all, expect an even greater focus on European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) and European Train Control System (ETCS) solutions from suppliers around the world. With installations outside Europe – in North Africa, the Middle East, Australasia and elsewhere it is becoming a genuinely global signalling system that’s unsurprisingly attracting the attention of the world’s major manufacturers.

Its North American stablemate, Positive Train Control, is also finding favour outside the USA and Canada, and for long-distance heavy-haul railways in particular it offers an increasingly attractive way of increasing route capacity and improving safety where interoperability is less of a concern.

The growing metro sector is enjoying a boom, driven in large part by the increasing availablity and efficiency of Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) options, and development is rapid here, helped by intense competition and rapidly evolving technology.

Improvements to conventional signalling will not be forgotten either – better and more efficient interlockings and train detection systems are likely to form a major aspect of companies’ exhibits, as will the latest developments in lineside signals and allied technology such as level crossing systems.

We’ll be previewing the exhibition in more detail closer to the event – but what do you think will be the standout trends at this year’s show? Let us know via the contact form…

France clears GE/Alstom power and signalling deal

Alstom is to acquire GE Transportation’s signalling business for $800 million as part of a complex deal which sees the American giant gain most of Alstom’s energy assets.

Since GE made its bid around two months ago Siemens and Mistubishi Heavy Industries have pushed hard with a counter-offer, but following the agreement of French construction company Bouygues to loan 20% of Alstom shares (it holds 29.3%) on June 22 the way is clear for GE to conclude its deal. Bouygues will surrender its two board seats, effectively making the French government the main shareholder. The government is being loaned the shares for 20 months, during which time it can buy the shares at a 2-5% discount if the stock market price is €35 or greater.

GE Transportation’s signalling portfolio is comprehensive, with ERTMS, CBTC and Positive Train Control systems and a range of associated equipment including interlockings, train detection and operational control centres.

From Alstom’s point of view, while it loses much of its energy business it retains its system-wide capabilities in rail, and will have a much greater presence in the North American market. It also means that concerns about France’s flagship TGV trains being built by a foreign company are in abeyance. Subject to regulatory approval the deal with GE is expected to be concluded early next year.

It is another deal which shrinks the number of suppliers in the signalling sector, however. How will it affect the market? Let us know your thoughts…

Size matters for ERTMS onboard

When European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) was being developed the first pieces of onboard equipment were rather large, about the size of a domestic refrigerator, many said. At the time there was no question that the signalling companies had done extremely well to get all the necessary kit into such a small space. Given the pace of computing technology, can we do rather better now – and is there really a need for smaller onboard installations?

Invensys Rail, now part of Siemens, pointed the way forward with its LYRA onboard installation, which was vastly smaller than anything else the market had seen two years ago. About the size of a desktop PC case, it was small enough to be fitted into even the most space starved locomotives and rolling stock. Given that in the four years since it was launched in 2010 that computing power available in a tablet PC format is so much greater, with suitable provision for the standard interfaces needed, could we see an onboard ERTMS package able to be fitted in the space under a passenger train seat?

Technologically it appears perfectly feasible. The computing requirements of ERTMS are not all that great, so providing that power in the smallest possible installation would appear to make sense from space considerations alone. Can such small devices be made robust enough for railway applications? There seems no reason why they can’t: military specification equipment is robust enough for those demands, and would surely be appropriate, with modification, for rail use.

But what benefits would there really be from going down such a road? Most modern trains are designed with ERTMS (or CBTC or PTC) provision in mind so space isn’t really a major issue for new rolling stock. For the retro-fit market though, every cubic centimetre you save can be valuable. Fitting ERTMS onboard equipment to older locomotives can be a particular challenge, and it is easier to find space for something the size of a small PC than a refrigerator in a bodyshell. That is an obvious advantage.

Another advantage is that there will be an ongoing requirement for non-ERTMS fitted vehicles to travel over ERTMS fitted routes for occasional maintenance or special duties. The cost of fitting ERTMS to a locomotive that spends 99% of its working life on legacy routes is hard to justify – but what if you could fit the necessary sensors and interfaces at an overhaul and then, when needed, plug in a modular ERTMS computing platform for those rare journeys? It would save money for operators and track authorities who may have to fund onboard installation for legacy stock and reduce the complexity of day to day operation on non-ERTMS lines, yet still retain a capability for ERTMS operation where needed. It could even be a solution for main line heritage operations such as those in the United Kingdom, Germany and Poland (amongst others) where occasional outings of historical vehicles would otherwise effectively be blocked by ERTMS.

Is any of this possible, feasible or sensible? Let us know your thoughts….

Can we solve the signal engineer shortage?

As investment in signalling systems ramps up around the world, the long feared shortage of signalling engineers is now starting to bite, according to highly placed industry insiders. Many of the existing engineers are approaching retirement, and although signalling companies are recruiting heavily and investing in training schemes, there are some territories – the UK and North America to name but two – where the biggest constraint on signalling projects isn’t now financial but human.

The biggest problem is that developing the expertise to become a signalling engineer takes a long time: you can’t simply take, for example, a mechanical engineer and expect him or her to become familiar with the safety critical minutiae of systems as varied as European Rail Traffic Management, Positive Train Control and Communications Based Train Control in two weeks. It takes time – and that doesn’t help get desperately needed staff on the ground on ongoing projects.

In the short term the global signalling companies are seeking to redeploy staff from markets which aren’t growing so rapidly, but not all staff want to work very long distances from their homes and families. At best it is an imperfect solution. The long term solution, of course, is to invest heavily in graduate recruitment and training in local markets – but from a signalling company’s point of view, what happens if that market suddenly dries up? The investment is wasted.

Such is the importance of ensuring there are sufficient signalling engineers that it must now be the time for a pan-industry effort involving manufacturers, track authorities, trainbuilders and industry bodies to work together and present an attractive case for graduates to join the rail industry. Then it is vital that when they are fully trained there is enough work for them to base a career on.

It will not be easy to achieve this – but it is becoming more and more critical every day that as an industry we do.


Happy New Year! Here’s our predictions for 2014

On behalf of everyone involved with, a Happy New Year to all of our readers and followers on Twitter. Thank you all for your support, and we’re going to be expanding our coverage this year with some exciting external contributions (if you have a topic of interest, please do get in touch) and more in-depth reports.

With the best part of a year ahead of us, here’s our five predictions for the world of signalling and train control in 2014….

A New Zealand commuter train believes a major country outside the US or EU will roll out PTC or ERTMS on its conventional railway network, as New Zealand is currently doing. Credit: Paul Bigland

  1. A major country outside the European Union and North America will announce plans to roll out ERTMS or PTC on its conventional network
  2. In a similar vein, ERTMS or PTC will prevent a major accident that legacy signalling systems could not have, emphasising the safety credentials of these technologies
  3. The resurgence of metro networks worldwide will continue, with another major city (probably in the Middle East or Asia) announcing the construction of a new system
  4. While the growth of high-speed rail in Europe will slow as the network nears completion, North America will move forward with its HSR plans
  5. And finally, as a bit of fun for rail fans, an organisation in the United Kingdom or Germany will develop an ERTMS onboard package which allows the operation of heritage steam locomotives on routes fitted with ERTMS.

We’ll revisit these predictions at the end of 2014 to see if we were correct – but if you have any views on them, or your own signalling predictions, please let us know!

Siemens and Bombardier upgrade New York commuter lines

A consortium of Siemens Rail Automation and Bombardier Transportation is to develop, test and commission Positive Train Control (PTC) signalling on the USA’s busiest two commuter railways in a contract worth USD 428 million if all options are exercised.

Long Island Railroad has just finished restoring Queens Village station - but its signalling is set for a far more radical makeover. Credit: MTA Long Island Railroad

Long Island Railroad has just finished restoring Queens Village station – but its signalling is set for a far more radical makeover. Credit: MTA Long Island Railroad

Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) awarded the deal for the upgrade of the North Railroad and Long Island Railroad in New York State with completion scheduled for 2019. In common with other PTC systems, the installation will see trains monitored extensively to prevent overspeeding and passing signals at danger. It also offers a significant potential increase in network capacity over the 1100 track-km long routes.

Bombardier will be responsible for system integration, project management and design, and supply control centre subsystems while Siemens is responsible for onboard equipment and modification of existing signalling equipment.

Will main line standards drive innovation to metro signalling?

Back in 1953 the esteemed UK railway manager Keith Grand once made a speech about standardisation, saying: “I believe it [standardisation] may mean standardisation of brains. When you get this it is the end of progress.” With the standards for most main line signalling effectively a choice between European Rail Traffic Management System or Positive Train Control, where can the signalling sector innovate?

It’s untrue, of course, to suggest that there isn’t innovation in terms of ERTMS and PTC – one of the highlights of InnoTrans 2012 was Invensys Rail’s incredibly compact Lyra onboard ERTMS solution – but with the standards laid down, what scope is there for really radical thinking to improve safety and enhance capacity on main lines? For all the benefits of common standards it’s hard to believe that either ERTMS or PTC really represent the ultimate in railway signalling.

Thankfully metro systems have by and large ignored these common standards in favour of a raft of signalling systems from the major providers, and in this sector competition is as fierce as ever, thank goodness. Although the concepts of offerings from the major players – Alstom, Siemens, Bombardier and Thales – are broadly similar the executions are wildly different. And with investment in the global metro sector continuing to soar the pressure is on all of the suppliers to innovate and improve their offerings.

The growth of common standards like ERTMS haven’t stifled innovation in the signalling sector – they’ve merely refocussed it, and the winners of this shift are the populations of cities all over the world.

Is signalling innovation concentrated on metro networks now?

Is signalling innovation concentrated on metro networks now?